To say that she would be there some days later in an official capacity as a Zimbabwean diplomatic representative to the SADC Summit is not good enough. At the time of the assault, she was clearly on a private visit. This argument is undermined anyway because it appears she did not appear at the conference.
The real spirit of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, which covers the international agreement on this, is to stop foreign diplomats from being harassed or attacked in any other way by the host country, especially during periods of conflict. It is not designed to give people immunity from prosecution for their own actions. Unfortunately, however, that can be what happens in practice, as in Grace’s case, only because it would be too easy for a host nation to trump up charges against a foreign diplomat. In fact, the Vienna Convention is explicit on this point: “without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”
However, it is very interesting that the South African Minister who made the decision to grant her diplomatic immunity, Nkoana-Mashabane, did not try to claim that Grace was legally covered by diplomatic immunity at the time of the offence – which would have been the sensible thing to do.
Instead, she appears to have been completely open about the fact that at least part of her decision was based on expediency, not law, simply to avoid embarrassment at the SADC Summit, and on the need to maintain good relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Everyone knows that Zimbabwe does not even pretend to be governing on behalf of its citizens. This saga shows very clearly that South Africa is the same, just by Nkoana-Mashabane being completely open about her reasons. Had the same happened in any of the developed countries, and had the politicians behind the scenes decided not to prosecute for the sake of good international relations, they would never have admitted that in public. They would have found some legal reason not to proceed.
But it would not have got that far in a developed nation anyway, because the nation itself would have denounced the action, and they would also have allowed the host nation to prosecute. It is also probable that the offender would have resigned from all public office before they were removed by their own powers that be.
All developed nations are very protective of their own citizens, and equally openly critical of their own citizens behaving in an unseemly fashion in other countries. This action proves South Africa is not the same, and one feels very sorry for the way in which Gabriella Engels has been let down by her own government. One hopes that her lawyers will not let this matter rest because it is important for all South African citizens to know whether their own government will protect them in the way those of the developed nations do.
The official statement claims that Nkoana-Mashabane “agonised” over her decision. This is to give her feelings a distinction they do not deserve. The reality is she took the coward’s way out, and I would not be surprised if it emerged she had had political pressure put on her from higher up in the South African government.
Where Zimbabwe is concerned, it proves what every Zimbabwean already knows: that Grace considers herself to be above the law. But it is worse than that: she knows her position is so secure in Zimbabwe’s authoritarian state that she has no need to worry.
Whether she will eventually succeed Robert Mugabe remains to be seen. The worrying thing is not whether she will or will not be his successor, it is the fact that she is even in the frame for it. In any healthy society, her own actions would have disqualified her years ago. Will this be the final straw that broke the camel’s back? Sadly, that is by no means a “given”.
But it all depends on whether Zimbabweans have finally had enough.Post published in: Featured